NUMBER ONE
FOR COACH & BUS

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Millbrook 2018
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August 08 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is the Senior Journalist at routeONE magazine is also the title’s chief test driver, with considerable vehicle knowledge


Panther's versatility ticks a box for one customer

At 12.2m, the Volvo B8R with Plaxton Panther body is a coach that can do lots of jobs. That is among several reasons that it particularly appealed to Fleetwood, Lancashire-based buyer Bradshaw’s Travel

Bradshaw’s Panther has both a continental door and an emergency exit

Versatile coaches often attract a strong following. That was Plaxton’s thinking when it developed the 12.2m variant of its mid-range Panther, which is mounted on a Volvo B8R chassis.

It was also part of the combination’s appeal to Fleetwood operator Bradshaw’s Travel. It has taken two new Panthers this year, one of which is a 12.2m model that will be used on school contracts, tours and private hire.

“We developed the 12.2m Panther because some operators were struggling to get longer coaches into awkward locations,” says Plaxton Commercial Manager Mark Ballam. “But as we did so, we also looked at how we could make it as versatile as possible.”

As delivered to Bradshaw’s, the Panther is a 49-seater; its lower than typical capacity is a trade-off of its short length. But it has a novel layout. It comes with both a continental door and a rear emergency exit.

Currently, the latter is locked shut. But later in life it can be opened, and Plaxton will supply a kit to remove the top half of the toilet and add flooring adjacent to the then-locked continental door. Shuffle a few existing seats around and add two pairs, and the coach becomes a 53-seater.

That’s a big tick in the box for operators who keep vehicles for most or all of their service lives, and it will also benefit second-hand value for those that don’t.

Bradshaw’s finds the 49-passenger capacity ample for tour work, and Volvo’s modest 7.7-litre D8K engine has proved to be up to the job so far. Perhaps most importantly, Director Jill Swift adds that service and support from Plaxton and Volvo have been on point. She kindly made the coach available recently for a routeone Test Drive.

Build

The Panther is a mid-height model at 3.68m, and the Bradshaw’s example has manual top-hinged luggage locker doors. That’s one area that Jill may change on any further Panthers; Plaxton can oblige by fitting manual or powered parallel lifters.

Luggage locker doors are manual, top-hinged; powered parallel possible

A 400-litre diesel tank is over the front axle, with fillers on both sides. They are compatible with fast-fill pumps without fear of spillage. Ad-Blue also goes in at the front, on the nearside immediately behind the door.

The D8K engine is rated at 350bhp and it drives via Volvo’s I-Shift automated manual gearbox.

The ZF EcoLife automatic is an option, and may prove more suitable for applications involving a high degree of urban work, but for Bradshaw’s use, where long-distance tour work is a staple, the I-Shift is more appropriate.

GVW is 18,000kg and the coach tips the scales unladen at 12,365kg.

Passenger access

Access is a strong point across the Plaxton range. On its touring coaches, the Scarborough manufacturer always manages to incorporate a wide door and that is the case here.

Bradshaw’s coach has four steps to the platform and one to the gangway, but Plaxton can increase those numbers to five and two respectively in shallower increments. UK Coach Rally visitors may have seen the five-step entrance on a Panther for Lothian Motorcoaches.

Another hallmark of Plaxton is a good handrail arrangement by the door, and the Panther lives up to that standard, too. It has a sweeping upright pole that turn to the horizontal as it follows the route of boarding passengers and it extends far into the platform area.

The aisle is largely flat, but as far as the fourth row of seats, it and the flooring to each side of it is slopes modestly to give a slight ‘theatre effect’ layout in this part of the coach.

In its current configuration, with a centre toilet and continental exit, the Panther’s rear emergency door is marked as being not in use and its external handle has been removed. It also has seats directly adjacent to it.

Fainsa seats with leather inserts are fitted; other manufacturers offered

Should the operator upseat the coach and remove the toilet, the emergency door handle can be re-affixed. It is then necessary to submit a VTP5 form to DVSA to notify it of the alteration. Other than that, it is a simple conversion to undertake.

Passenger comfort

Bradshaw’s Panther has Brusa seats with what the manufacturer describes as ‘sports trim’.

In reality, that means cream leather headrest, piping and shoulder inserts to complement the red fabric; also provided are three-point belts, drop-down tables and footrests. Plaxton can install seats from Fainsa, Kiel or Politecnica and trim options up to full leather are available.

Climate control is via a Thermo King air-conditioning unit in conjunction with a Webasto coolant pre-heater. Perimeter radiators are fitted and the air-conditioning vents via a large grille at the front and also the passenger service units.

A single fixed front monitor works in conjunction with a Bosch entertainment system. If required, a second monitor can be added, and Plaxton can install retractable, aircraft-style 10in monitors in the underside of the luggage racks.

The test coach does not have USB charging points, but they are available and they can be specified in a variety of positions.

The toilet cubicle is substantial, and above it is a servery that includes a bin, a fridge and a water boiler. A floor-level toilet at the rear is an option; a second fridge can be installed in the dashboard. On the Bradshaw’s coach the space functions as ambient storage.

Double-glazing comes with only the outer pane tinted. That’s for a reason, says Mark; it reduces the amount of reflection from within the coach. Both of the roof hatches are glazed and they admit a good amount of natural light.

Panther cab is modestly-sized but the controls are generally well laid-out

Driver comfort

The driver gets a Grammer seat, and a microphone is mounted on the B-pillar. Adjustment of the seat is OK, but the cab seems to be a little smaller than on some other coaches, and that is reflected in the amount of storage; it is sufficient, but not outstanding.

Both pedals are bottom-hinged, and Volvo’s traditional method of adjusting the steering wheel accounts for a third, positioned where the clutch would otherwise be. Space around the steering column is good.

A single-piece powered windscreen blind is fitted and the signalling window is also powered, as well as heated. A péage windows is within the door; the extensive glazing there extends almost to the bottom, giving the driver an excellent view to the nearside.

Visibility elsewhere is also good, but the A-pillar is substantial. Coupled with a lower offside mirror to complement the gullwing arms, it creates a blindspot that drivers will need to be aware of; it was evident at a zebra crossing in Lytham St Anne’s.

Controls are the normal chunky rocker switches. The handbrake and gear selector are both immediately to the driver’s right, but they would perhaps benefit from being split, as the I-Shift ‘joystick’ is slightly in the way of the handbrake lever.

Finally, the driver gets a roll-up blind behind the seat. That’s an unusual fitment nowadays, but it will no doubt be useful in reducing reflections in the windscreen during times of darkness.

Performance

Some drivers may sniff at the small 7.7-litre D8K engine in the B8R, but with 350bhp and 1,400Nm of torque on tap it is up to the job in hand. Jill reports that on the stiff climb on the A55 at Rhuallt in North Wales, the fully-loaded coach will hold 50mph.

Plaxton touring coaches always have good entrance; Panther no exception

routeone was not able to test the Panther under such conditions, but its performance on flat ground is little different to that of coaches with significantly larger engines.

Starting from stationary at a roundabout onto a motorway slip road it was up to the limited speed before joining the main carriageway, and when at 62mph the engine is turning at around 1,450rpm.

That not only means low noise levels within the saloon, but it also delivers good fuel consumption. On a variety of ‘real world’ work, Bradshaw’s has seen a consistent 11mpg.

The I-Shift comes with power and economy modes. The only real difference in the former is that engine speed is taken much higher before upshifting; while that has a modest influence on performance, it is likely to be outweighed by a reduction in fuel economy.

Manoeuvrability of the 12.2m B8R is noticeably better than a 12.8m model, but it still demands care at awkward T-junctions.

Like its bigger brother the B11R, the B8R comes with Volvo’s integrated retarder. It functions independently of engine speed and is as powerful as one would expect; with care, it’s possible to slow the coach to walking pace from 62mph without recourse to the foundation brakes.

The B8R’s roadholding is very good and it corners well, particularly when pushed. There is no hint of ‘scrabble’ from the front tyres when doing so.

Verdict

As a versatile performer the Panther-bodied B8R is a solid bet. The Volvo chassis delivers a robust and frugal driveline, and Plaxton can incorporate an extensive number of optional extras.

Support from Plaxton and Volvo drove Bradshaw’s back to combination

The twin-exit arrangement adds further to the Bradshaw’s coach’s appeal. In time it will allow conversion to a simple local private hire and school work vehicle, but for now the Panther is earning its corn on longer-distance duties; within its first three months, it had covered 20,000km.

Bradshaw’s took delivery of a tri-axle B11R with Panther bodywork at around the same time as the B8R and Jill would not rule out a third should work dictate.

That’s largely down to the service provided by the two OEMs. While Bradshaw’s carries out routine maintenance in-house, Volvo’s dealership in Preston will dispatch a Frontline specialist coach and bus technician when needed.

Equally, Plaxton has proved able to deliver good backup, and it was that which swung the latest order over another manufacturer.

“That support is invaluable for a small operator,” she says. “Both of our Panthers have performed well and we are very happy with them.”

Facts and figures

Retail price: £249,500
Engine: 7.7-litre, six-cylinder Volvo D8K
Power: 261kW (350bhp) @2,200rpm
Torque: 1,400Nm @1,200-1,600rpm
Emissions: Euro 6 using EGR and SCR
Tyres: 295/80 R22.5
Fuel economy: 11mpg
Acceleration 0-30mph: 15.8 sec; 0-50mph: 30.1sec
Noise front: 60dBa; middle: 61dBa; rear: 61dBa
Length: 12.20m
Height: 3.68m
Width: 2.55m
Wheelbase: 6.63m
Gross weight: 18,000kg
Unladen weight: 12,365kg



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